Opinion: LA Times' Mexican investigation reveals blight on produce sector - FreshFruitPortal.com

Opinion: LA Times' Mexican investigation reveals blight on produce sector

By Fresh Fruit Portal editor Matthew Ogg

Matt Ogg column photoMexico, I've never really been so I don't really know. These lyrics from James Taylor fill my head as I try to address the delicate subjects of exploitation, indentured servitude and child labor that exist on some of the country's farms, as revealed by the Los Angeles Times' recent four-part investigative report 'Product of Mexico'.

In a nation known for its drug-related violence, a dismal corruption perceptions index and a third of its population living in 'moderate' poverty at best, it should come as no surprise that some of the society's most vulnerable people would fall prey to the practices described.

But I was surprised, and I was appalled that such pertinent issues had been swept under the rug and ignored for so long. As a member of the press who reports regularly on the Mexican produce industry, I felt like I was a part of the process for not having covered it myself. That shock then turned to disappointment. How can it be that illiterate workers on large, modernized plantations are charged higher prices for their day-to-day goods and end up in debt after a season of back-breaking work? How can it be that children are denied their fundamental right to live like children?

Then the defensive instinct kicks in, and I'm sure many growers would have felt it too after reading those last two questions, with thoughts like 'hold on, not everyone acts like that'. Indeed, Fresh Produce Association of the Americas (FPAA) president Lance Jungmeyer told The Packer "that is not the Mexico I know", and also discussed the upcoming formation of an International Fresh Produce Social Responsibility Alliance.

Jungmeyer's point raises the question of whether the problem highlighted is widespread or illustrated by selective content. It may be that just a small portion of Mexican farms are like this, but the example of police intervention at Bioparques last year - where 275 farmworkers including 24 malnourished children had been trapped -  shows there is a serious problem. No matter how extensive it is, something is wrong.

Also in The Packer, national editor Tom Karst asked readers whether the 'Product of Mexico' stories would be damaging to their businesses. It's a question that reminds me of concerns in the wake of health scares; consumers develop a negative association with a particular product from a place of origin, and that forces companies to adapt and improve.

Food safety is frequently cited as the number one concern amongst produce professionals, but "transparency" is also making headway into the minds of shoppers, who are increasingly taking the term "farm to fork" more literally with farmworker welfare at the fore. So in response to Karst's question, perhaps there will be backlash and a portion of the Mexican produce sector - including the most influential by setting new standards for the rest - will need to operate differently to turn the transparency factor from a negative into a positive.

This is totally achievable but will need support, particularly from the more forward-thinking retailers at the end of the supply chain, whose pricing and sourcing policies can go a long way in determining the capacity of producers to address the issues raised by the LA Times.

One particular item worth addressing is the conduct of independent company stores, or 'tiendas de raya', as mentioned in one of the articles. These stores have been known to set varying prices depending on the literacy of the farmworker shoppers, and often sell goods for much higher prices than convenience shops that are far to reach without a vehicle. In the days of United Fruit, farmworkers were held virtually captive as consumers as they were paid in scrip to be used in company stores; the situation is now technically different, but the monopolistic power of third party 'tiendas de raya' still holds these laborers at the operators' mercy.

This is where the responsibility lies with retail. It isn't right that those at the bottom of the supply chain are paying above-market prices for their food, to meet retailer demands that seek to offer the lowest prices for people with more purchasing power.

I'd like to call on Mexican growers to tell us your stories about what you're doing to address the kinds of issues raised in this report. What are you doing to ensure the affordability and accessability of household goods and food for workers? What are you doing to fight child labor, and also to provide childcare support and education services? We hear about these kinds of initiatives quite often, but not enough. You can reach out to us at news@freshfruitportal.com.